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Trump Embodies the Crisis of Capitalism: A Conversation With Naomi Klein

US media and politics have been thoroughly commodified.

President Donald Trump talks with journalists after signing tax reform legislation into law in the Oval Office December 22, 2017, in Washington, DC. 

How did we get to the Trump presidency and the current political moment? How might things get worse and what can we do to build an alternative? In her new book, Naomi Klein offers what she describes as “a plan for how, if we keep our heads, we might just be able to flip the script and arrive at a radically better future.” Arundhati Roy calls No Is Not Enough “an ordinary person’s guide to hope.” Order your copy today by making a donation to Truthout!

After the spate of disastrous floods, fires and quakes that have shocked us this year, this is a good time to revisit Naomi Klein, whose work continues to dig deep into the way that the global capitalists use shock and chaos to advance their agenda, regardless of the impact on the vulnerable. It’s hard to think of a national or global emergency that Donald Trump hasn’t tried to exploit for his own purposes, but still, a year after his election, roughly 30 percent of Americans polled continue to support his presidency. What is Trump selling? Who’s buying? And why? And what do those who consider themselves part of the resistance need to say “yes” to, after so many months and years of saying “no” to Trump and Trumpism? Naomi Klein is the author of 2017’s No Is Not Enough, as well as The Shock Doctrine, No Logo and This Changes Everything. You can watch this conversation — and many more like this — on the Laura Flanders Show, or subscribe to the free podcast: @lfshow

Laura Flanders: I’m waiting for the book that has “YES” as big on the cover.

Naomi Klein: Yeah, yeah. No, it’s true. I don’t like that when you look at it from far all you see is “No,” because that’s the opposite message of the book.

There’s a really important insight in this book, which has to do with the story we tell about capitalism. It’s changed. No longer the lifting of all boats. Can you just stop there and talk about the implications?

Well, I mean, we are in this moment where the ascendant moment for the so-called free-market project is in profound crisis, and in truth, it’s been in crisis for a long time. It’s been a kind of slow crisis with various stages, right? It was in crisis really, since it no longer became possible to negotiate a free-trade agreement with the consent of all the countries involved.

Lots of people would say it is crisis.

… that it is crisis, absolutely. I think there was a period from the ’80s and ’90s, let’s just say, the Reagan/Thatcher moment through the Clinton era, maybe up until … Seattle [in] 1999, where there was still … the promise and the propaganda of just, “We just need more capitalism and that’s what’s going to fix it. We need to deregulate markets further, we need to privatize everything. We need to lock it all in with these corporate free trade deals …”

… and that in so doing, we’d raise all boats.

Yeah, that it was going to spread around the world, prosperity for everyone. That phase of bringing in every corner of the globe into this singular project, that is what’s been in crisis, and it’s been in crisis because, for a long time, it was largely at the level of promise. Like, “If we do this, then this will happen….” But now, we’re in a moment where there’s a mountain of data, thanks to theorists like Thomas Piketty who have shown us so dramatically how inequality has widened everywhere — that these policies have been adopted, and lived experience, right?

So, that crisis, I think, has been building now for a couple of decades, but the 2008 financial crisis, watching the powerful break all of their lives in broad daylight, right? Intervening so dramatically in the market, doing all the things that they said couldn’t be done, everyone saw that, and once you see it, you can’t unsee it. You understand that the rules can be broken.

The other aspect of this is that the story about lifting all boats is up against a scenario, a reality where I think the last story I heard today was five people — five men — have between them the wealth equivalent to half the rest of the population, the rest of the world’s assets? Something like $400 billion.

Yep, 50 percent, yeah.

So, what you say in the book is that we replace that story of “capitalism will help everybody” with the story of “it’s winners and losers and you don’t want to be a loser.”

Right, right, and that is key to understanding Trump, because what he has been selling in this period as the wealth gap has widened, this period of a small group of super winners, and a whole lot of people who are just losing, is: “I will teach you how to be a winner.” I think it’s really important to understand that that is what he has been promising since he wrote The Art of the Deal. Like, “I’m going to teach you how to be like me, never mind that wealth is inherited, never mind that everything was handed to me….” And this is what he was selling at Trump University. “I’m going to turn you into the next Donald Trump.” University, right. That’s what “The Apprentice” was, right?


This ticket up to the “promised land,” up the elevator to Trump Tower, and it was precisely because … the alternative to that was getting worse and worse, that that was such a helpful sales pitch for him.

You make the point that he’s not the explanation for us being in this situation, but he is an expression of it … we all live in this ranking, rating world with enormous implications. I think, among other things, for organizing. How do you see it playing out?

Well, you know, I end the book with this section that I worried would be a little bit controversial, about how we need to kill our “inner Trump;” and I want to be clear, I’m not saying, “Kill Trump.” Our “Inner Trump.” The parts of ourselves that are a little bit Trumpish. I’m not saying that we are all the same as Trump, I’m not saying we are all equally responsible … but I am saying that he is a product of our culture. That he could become president is a product of our culture, and we’re all in the culture.

We don’t all have the same experiences of the culture, but the same culture that made it possible for the United States to have its first nuclear-armed reality TV star is the same cultur[e] … that [is] splintering our attention spans, and making so many of us think of ourselves as brands; as opposed to people in communities, and even our organizations, to think of ourselves not as part of a broad-based social movement, which needs all of our talents.

The way a social movement thinks … is “the more the merrier,” and the way a brand thinks is very proprietary. It’s very “Am I going to get the credit? Am I going to build my brand…?” And there’s a real conflict, and I think it’s important to talk about this is a non-accusatory way, because we’re products of our culture…. We may have a critique of it, but we’re still in this system, and we’re still products of it. The neoliberal project is in its fourth decade. So, I think we can talk about this without it degenerating into kind of, “You’re a sellout, you’re a jerk.”

Well, it is true that both things are happening at once. At the same time as we have these rankings and ratings, we also have more and more people talking about intersectionality and thinking of how things are connected in non-ranked kind of ways … and we have some examples … of intersected agendas … that are actually winning…. I’m thinking of the Jeremy Corbyn outcome of the British election. He didn’t win, but he certainly surpassed everybody’s expectations with a manifesto that reflected a very unranked set of priorities except for putting the many first. “The many, not the few” was his slogan.

But that’s important, right? That there was not the few, because I can see sort of Democrats going, “Oh, we like the ‘for the many’ part, but we’ll drop the ‘for the few’ because we’re not going to admit that there actually is a conflict going on. That there are interests who are trying to enrich themselves at the expense of the many….” And I think that’s been part of the problem, that unwillingness to kind of name names and say it’s a conflict.

If he could do it, could we do it?

I think so. I mean, this is the extraordinary part … and of course, Bernie Sanders did do it in his own way, because he did name names. He did say, “We are up against a billionaire class and there are many more of us.” He did it, and one of the things I like about Bernie as a politician is that he is able to do that without malice, and do it in a way that is not personal, but is structural.

So, I mean, I’m really heartened by the Corbyn campaign, because it proves that it’s possible to lead with ideas. I mean, Jeremy Corbyn is the antithesis of a Trump-like figure, but more importantly, to the UK, he’s the antithesis of Tony Blair. He is the antithesis of the colonization of the political class by the logic of corporate branding, and it was Tony Blair, as you know, who was the first person to do this.

When I was writing No Logo, and talking about the rise of this model and how it was seeping into every aspect of life, one of my examples was like, “In the UK … imagine talking about a political party as a brand.” That was shocking, that they were talking about rebranding Labour … and then he rebranded Britain, “Cool Britannia….” What I wrote at the time was that Tony Blair’s Labour Party — “New Labour” — was a labor-scented party. He was severing the traditional relationship between the Labour Party and … working people. That the brand, the logo, no longer had a relationship with the product … and the elite opinion-making was, “Well, you wouldn’t actually want to have anything to do with real workers, right?” Then, along comes Jeremy Corbyn and runs this campaign that features workers….

… I want to drill down into just some of the examples that you see of this work happening today, and how people are overcoming some of this brand culture to do the work [to] inch us forward … as the Canadians have said, “Leap us forward.” Talk about the Leap Manifesto, why is it called that and what’s in it?

Right, and there are many really good examples, I think, in this country…. The Vision for Black Lives [is] a just incredibly inspiring example of a people’s platform that was drafted by social movement, and when it came out almost a year ago, I think commentators were surprised at its ambition. They expected the movement to only focus on police violence, and it does focus on police violence, but it’s a sweeping vision for how to change society, right?

So, with the Leap, that’s basically what we did a year earlier when we were in the middle of a federal election campaign in Canada, and we found ourselves in a situation where none of the parties that had a chance of winning that election had a platform that we felt was nearly ambitious enough, given the overlapping crises we face. One of those crises is climate change. Another one is racial injustice. Another one is systematic betrayal of the treaties and land rights of Indigenous people, and on and on.

So, our little organization helped host a meeting of 16 movement leaders and organizers that just kind of carved out some space to dream. To say “Okay, what do we want instead? What does the world look like instead…?” And it was really hard, because we realized we didn’t have … a muscle memory of doing this, and it’s just like, “Well, we know how to come together and say we really don’t like this trade deal or we really don’t like this politician” … but … we broke into smaller groups and filled up whiteboards, and what was clear is that there was a connective tissue…

All those intersections again.

Yeah, yeah, and a lot of it had to do with care. Care, consent, moving from a culture that is based on endless taking and disposing of the resources of the Earth, of human beings, of pushing beyond limits as if there’s no consequences, to a culture of radical care and consent. We launched this document, it was rat-savaged … in the corporate media, but people continued to use it and adapt it, and take it … we’re hearing from a lot of people in this country who are interested in the model.

Well, that’s my last question. I was reminded in your book of how the right come into a crisis. When you reminded me that it was Mike Pence who was behind that post-Katrina plan to basically do away with all the protections for workers that had been put in place by activists on the Gulf Coast for many years … and I’m left always, reading your wonderful work with this sense of, “How can we take advantage of crisis with as much oomph as they did…?” And maybe you just need to remind our audience who is Mike Pence and what it was [like] to come across him again.

Well, when I was writing The Shock Doctrine, the book begins with Hurricane Katrina as the ultimate example of this tactic that the book focuses on: of using periods of severe collective trauma to push through policies that you’d never be able to push through without a crisis, because there’s no consent. I mean, it’s the ultimate abuse of the principle of consent democracy, whatever you want to call it, and New Orleans — it was particularly abusive because people were not in their city. I mean, they were not home.

There had been many of them put onto buses and planes at gun point and given one-way tickets out of the city, and when they were gone, that’s when their housing projects were demolished. That’s when their schools were turned into charter schools or shut down completely, and New Orleans became this laboratory for these pet ideological, very profitable projects, and so, there was this meeting where this was all mapped out when New Orleans was still partially under water. It was at the Heritage Foundation….

You can put a checkmark next to a lot of them today … and when Trump appointed Mike Pence as his running mate, I knew I knew the name from somewhere, but I couldn’t quite place it, and then I remembered that his name was at the bottom of that document, because he was at that time, the chair of the Republican study group.

So, this is why … Laura, you know me, I don’t put out books quickly. It takes me five years, and this book I kind of wrote in a little bit of a frenzy, because I really wanted it to be out before there is a major crisis other than the crisis that is Donald Trump, because I’m really worried about what this configuration of characters would do if they had an external shock to exploit, whether it’s an economic crisis, even a Katrina-like event, or heaven forbid, a terrorist attack like Manchester…. There needs to be that confidence in moments of crisis to put forward a transformational agenda, and that confidence is often missing. I think that’s going to change though, because I think the movements are in a different position.

We can’t wait for that crisis to come up with that agenda.

No, we’ve got to get ready.

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